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The Right Medicine

The Right Medicine

Mountain Life
By Paul Tolme
posted: 02/18/2004

After a decade of medical school, the spring of 1997 should have been the most exhilarating time of Jim Youssef's career. The talented young spine surgeon, living near New Hampshire's Dartmouth College, had lucrative offers from prestigious hospitals around the country coming in at $200,000 and up. But Youssef found himself questioning his priorities. His father recently had died of a liver illness after years of struggle. At the same time, his newborn daughter was diagnosed with a heart defect. The dual shocks, combined with a major career choice, overwhelmed him. "I don't have the strength to keep looking for jobs," he told his wife, Melissa.

So Youssef refused the big-city hospital contracts, gulped hard and took the lowest-paying job he was offered. He moved to the medical backwater of Durango, Colo., where he knew his family would be happiest, enjoying the skiing, hiking and small-town community. "You're making the biggest mistake of your life," scolded a mentor from medical school. The comment stung. "I decided to prove him wrong," Youssef says.

Six years later, Youssef, 39, is no longer defensive about his Dartmouth-to-Durango career path. Working in a remote corner of Colorado, he rebuilds spines using an innovative stem-cell fusion technique that avoids the painful procedure of removing bone from the patient's pelvis. His clinic, Spine Colorado, is now regarded as one of the best sports medicine facilities in the region, attracting some of the most difficult cases from across the Southwest. His research is regularly published in medical journals, which is rare for a physician outside a major academic hospital. And now Youssef is launching a Web-based nonprofit organization, Spine Connect, that will allow spine surgeons to participate in research from far-flung destinations, seek advice on perplexing cases and share insights faster than ever.

Youssef has no regrets that he uprooted his family and moved to Durango, an outdoor-obsessed community that never sleeps. He didn't even learn to ski until he was 27. Melissa, then his girlfriend, had planned a ski trip to Mt. Bachelor, Ore., with friends, so Youssef took lessons on an indoor carpeted slope in Portland. After the trip, he was hooked.

"He's definitely taken the road less traveled," says friend Jeffrey Wang, chief of spine surgery at UCLA's medical school. Hoping to capitalize on Youssef's reputation and make Durango a destination medical center similar to Vail's renowned Steadman-Hawkins sports medicine clinic, Mercy Medical, the local hospital, is building a new $76 million facility with state-of-the-art surgical suites.

In hindsight, moving to Durango-with Durango Mountain Resort (formerly Purgatory Resort) just a few miles away, mild winters and the San Juan Mountains as a playground-was the right move for Youssef and his family. However, it was a major gamble for someone of Youssef's professional stature, with $180,000 in medical-school debt and no colleagues with whom to conduct research. It would be like Bode Miller taking a high school ski-coaching job in New Mexico. For the first two years in Durango, Youssef settled into his professional life and enjoyed the outdoors. Then, the motivation that made this son of Egyptian immigrants an achiever in medical school kicked in. "It's a great place to live," he says, "but I realized that if I was going to stay in Durango, I had to make my mark."

That mark, he decided, would be a top-notch spine clinic. He visited clinics around the country, solicited advice from experts, borrowed $500,000 and once again gambled that his instincts were right. For his next challenge, Youssef not only wants to establish a successful business, he hopes to revolutionize medicine.

"There's a lot of interest in using the Internet to advance medical care," says Youssef, explaining why he decided to launch Spine Connect. Traditionally, medical advances dribble out as they're published piecemeal in academic journals. Moreover, research is often difficult for rural doctors to conduct. With Spine Connect, they'll be able to use the Web to collaborate on clinical trials and share information in real time.

Youssef hopes to land seed money to begin clinical trials this year. Operating costs for the venture would be covered by membership fees from medical companies that want access to a worldwide community of spine experts. "If we get it to work, you could have Trauma Connect, Hand Connect, Brain Connect-the possibilities are endless," he says.

Youssef's remote location doesn't keep his job at arm's length. He works 80 hours a week, performs 350 surgeries annually, sees 45 patients a week, conducts research, holds monthly seminars at the University of New Mexico medical school and does $200,000 in pro bono work per year. His assistant says she could book him into meetings morning, noon and night for two solid months. Wednesday mornings, however, he escapes to Durango Mountain Resort. Melissa, 38, who met Jim on a blind date and found herself engaged to him three months later, is amazed by her husband's stamina. "I don't know how he keeps it all together."

The skiing helps. When Youssef visited Durango for a job interview in 1997, the partners at Durango Orthopedics wisely took him to the slopes. The proximity of the ski area to his workplace made Youssef's decision much easier. Now he skis every Wednesday morning for several hours, and the entire family hits the mountain on weekends. His two oldest children are on the local freestyle team. Since he moved to Durango, his skiing has "improved dramatically," and several years ago the surgeon learned to telemark, hoping for a better workout. He found it. Youssef's now a black-diamond free-heeler who has skied around the world, from heli-trips in the Dolomites and Canada to long ski weekends at Vail, Taos and elsewhere in the Rockies. But it's the fact that he can slip up to DMR for a couple of hours of stress release on Bull Run, his favorite trail, that has made relocating to Durango such a treat. "Living here, I spend a lot less time in traffic and more time on the hill. That's key."

Colleagues no longer question Youssef's decision to move to Durango. He won't divulge his earnings, but says it's in the top 1 percent of American households. This becomes evident when he parks his Audi Quattro on a hillside overlooking Durango, where Youssef wants to show a visitor yet another of his projects: a $1.5 million, 6,600-square-foot, Telluride-inspired "dream home," with views of the snow-capped La Plattas. He and Melissa spent two years designing it.

Miraculously, his daughter born with the heart defect has completely healed. "I wish my dad was here to see all that I've done," Youssef says, pausing to manage the emotion. "But I feel like he's smiling down on me."

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